Auto Electronics Developers Face New Challenges

30 April 2014

Electronics360 contributor Rick DeMeis talked with Jim Buczkowski, Ford's global director of electrical and electronics systems research and advanced engineering. Jim is responsible for the research and design of electrical and electronic systems including in-car information and entertainment, telematics, driver information, and active safety systems for Ford vehicles globally. He has been with Ford for 33 years and has experience in electronics design, electronics manufacturing, product development, quality, and supply chain information technology.

Electronics360: With more electronic processing in vehicles today, what can be done to reduce the number of processors needed?

Jim Buczkowski: One trend is integrating functions enabled by faster processors and integrated circuits that combine functions. Developments such as 3D chips are being looked at in the computer industry, but because of our [strict] requirements in the auto industry there would be some work to do to meet our environmental performance and reliability requirements. I would focus more on quad-core processors, integrated circuits that combine Wi-Fi, cellular, Bluetooth, and near-field communications functions in one integrated circuit instead of separate parts that take more area of a printed circuit board. We reduce the number of parts, reduce the size, but increase the functions in one box. We put two boxes in one, saving packaging space, reduce the number of power supplies, and we can also share signals more tightly between functions.

Electronics 360: With increasing numbers of electronic systems, what about keeping the power requirements manageable?

Jim Buczkowski: Conserving energy is always important. It is not off the table in the future to have some higher-voltage power supplies, because we have more actuators, such as steering, braking, and suspension, that require a lot of energy. It may make sense to have a split power supply, where some of the actuators are run off higher voltage because that lowers current, but you have to make sure it is cost-effective .

We also monitor the consumer electronics business to see how they solve problems, such as for smart phones. A phone can be configured to shut down portions to conserve power, which we can learn from to better manage our vehicle architecture, say for a key fob to selectively activate functions rather than entire systems, which can be activated when you "turn the key."

Electronics 360: What might be the next breakthrough in automotive electronics?

Jim Buczkowski: It's interesting to see how we are using different approaches to solve computational problems. An example is Nvidia and its approach to graphics control, processing, and visualization tools. In graphics, there is an advantage in highly parallel processing versus classical CPUs. So are there other compute-intensive problems that can be solved using GPUs--and a whole bunch of them in parallel rather than just cranking up the speed of a classic CPU--for image processing and voice recognition.

Electronics 360: What are some other challenges in automotive electronics development?

Jim Buczkowski: One is the human-machine interface and how we integrate [the car] with the driver. Our focus is drivers doing the primary functions of driving, but today drivers want to maintain connections with family and friends--so how do we do that in a non-distracting way? Voice recognition is really important in keeping hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. The technology continues to get better – it’s evolved from understanding individual words to understanding phrases in context. It could evolve to predictive searching where the system, after experience, "understands" what you are trying to do and anticipates.

Another challenge is keeping drivers’ eyes up instead of having to look down. Head-up displays are continuing to advance so drivers won't have to look down for information.

We are also looking at different inputs such as gesture recognition, but the jury is out on whether that is really powerful, and the places where it works well [such as expanding a map image], intuitively, and is easy to use.

Sensors are another challenge, and how the vehicle “understands" its surroundings. Some examples are radar looking at vehicles ahead; cameras recognizing people, animals, and road signs; and lidar [laser ranging]. We already use cameras and ultrasound for backup assistance and assisted parallel parking. Eventually we will have remote parking where you can be outside the vehicle and have it pull into a space. And besides sensors, there is processing and the necessary algorithms.

Electronics 360: How close are we to autonomous, self-driving vehicles?

Jim Buczkowski: There is still quite a bit of work to do. We are focused on the building blocks to get there. But two things are important. One is these systems have to be affordable and the second is people aren't going to immediately jump into an automated driving vehicle and feel comfortable. They are going to have to get comfortable with the technologies over time, and as they experience these building blocks, they will feel more comfortable with relinquishing control. There are some people still uncomfortable with automated speed control where they don't have to hit the brakes--how do we design systems to make people feel comfortable to not brake and let go of the wheel when the car doesn't drive exactly the way they do? Then there is the issue of handing control back to the driver if sensors do not have enough information, or something unanticipated occurs, et cetera.

Electronics 360: Finally, how do vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications fit into automated vehicle architecture?

Jim Buczkowski: Vehicles have to be connected to their environment and V2V and V2X allow a vehicle to have a different level of "awareness" of other vehicles around it. While a vehicle's sensor technology is looking at something, vehicle communication tells it where other vehicles are, their paths, and speeds, reinforcing driver awareness and providing earlier warnings for potential control action.

We need to work with other manufacturers to make sure our vehicles are compatible. And when it comes to user experience, and communicated data, we are always going to provide for consumers to opt out if they'd rather not share information. If they opt in, we are making sure we can create robust systems that protect the data, and use it for the driver’s benefit.

One of the necessary pieces of V2V communications, dedicated short-range communications radio (DSRC, IEEE 802.11p), has low latency, which allows the software stacks that ride on top of that to provide a very quick connection and disconnection with other vehicles. We are working with our suppliers, technology providers, government, and other OEMs to make sure we have secure and robust communications--with widespread adoption.

We are excited about the future, and dedicated to safe and secure experiences for our customers. Technology is the enabler for those experiences, and we are embracing technology partners for that.

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